Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman learned the harsh reality in a meeting with Big Sky Conference representatives this past week.
He relayed the message to head football coach Tim Walsh.
The Mustangs needed to beat Northern Arizona on Saturday or their season — hinging on their hopes for the first postseason berth under their fourth-year coach — would be over.
“We knew going in we had to win,” Walsh said. “They said the loser of our game was going to be out. I didn’t say that to our team, but we knew it. We had to win.”
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Not only did Cal Poly (9-2, 7-1 Big Sky) win 42-35 in Flagstaff, Ariz., to grab a share of the conference title in its first year in the Big Sky, the Mustangs were awarded a top-12 seed on an at-large berth when the NCAA selection committee released the 20-team FCS playoff brackets Sunday.
The placement gives the Mustangs, who moved up to No. 12 in the The Sports Network media poll after the victory, a bye during the first week of the playoffs, perfectly timed for an ailing team that needs to get healthy.
Northern Arizona (8-3, 6-2 Big Sky) fell to No. 20 in the poll and was left out of the playoffs after losing its final two games of the season.
Cal Poly will play at No. 5 Sam Houston State (8-3) on Dec. 1, giving several key players a chance to rest during the week of Thanksgiving.
The bye is “a great accomplishment for our team,” Walsh said. “I just couldn’t be happier for our players and what we accomplished. It gives us a sense of what we did and hopefully what we can continue to accomplish.
“We need a bye. We were beat up. The bye definitely couldn’t come at a better time, and I’m extremely happy to have it. Our players earned it.”
Against the Lumberjacks on Saturday, safety Alex Hubbard and tackle Karl Winkelman were hurt with knee injuries. Winkelman was making his return after missing four weeks with a similar injury.
Safety Dave Douglas and receiver Lance Castaneda did not travel with the team to Flagstaff with injuries, and though senior center Geoff Hyde was with the team, he has not played since suffering a knee sprain against Eastern Washington two weeks ago.
Cal Poly could potentially have them all back against a Sam Houston State program that made it all the way to the FCS championship game last year and brings impressive credentials into this playoff season as well.
The Bearkats are the highest scoring team in the FCS at 44.6 points per game and sport the third-stingiest rushing defense in the nation, allowing only 76.4 yards per game on the ground.
After a 1-2 start that included a 48-23 loss at Baylor, Sam Houston State had a seven game win streak snapped by a 47-28 loss to Texas A&M in the regular-season finale.
The Bearkats were undefeated during the 2011 regular season, and advanced to the national championship game as the No. 1 seed before falling 17-6 to North Dakota State, which was awarded the No. 1 playoff seed this season.
After landing in San Luis Obispo from the Phoenix area this morning shortly after the airing of the FCS playoff selection show on ESPNU, Walsh had little in-depth information on the Southland Conference co-champion.
“I watched them in the national championship last year, and they’re scary,” Walsh said. “They’re fast, they’re athletic and we’re going to have our work cut out for us, no question about it.”
Cal Poly came up just short of earning the Big Sky's automatic berth, despite forcing a three-way tie for the conference championship after beating Northern Arizona.
But the tiebreaker went to Eastern Washington by virtue of its win over Montana State, the third co-champion. The Eagles and Bobcats both held victories over Sacramento State, whose victory over the Mustangs put them on the losing end of all tiebreakers.
Eastern Washington is the No. 2 overall seed in the playoff bracket, and Montana State is No. 3. All three Big Sky teams occupy the same side of the bracket.
If Cal Poly can beat the Bearkats, the Mustangs would face the winner of a second-round game between Montana State and the victor of a first-round game between Stony Brook and Villanova.
“We are champions more importantly than anything,” Walsh said. “That’s the statement that we wanted to make in our first year in the Big Sky, and hopefully, we made it clear that we are one of the best teams in the country.”